Transpartisan Note #110
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
From the beginning Donald Trump marketed himself as The Man Who Knows How to Get Things Done. As the Master Dealmaker he would make everything right when he came in replacing all of the incompetents who preceded him.
Despite the braggadocio, everybody expected Trump’s political inexperience to present serious impediments to his getting things done. The biggest problem might be his ego—his strongest asset and his most glaring weakness. Would it allow him to accept and learn from his limitations? Although he made no effort to conceal the magnitude of his ego—he was smart enough, he said, to lead without help—most people assumed he would learn and ‘get better’ on the job.
Recent events raise serious questions about these assumptions. First came five weeks of governmental shutdown and no Trump border wall. The theater of the Trump governing style rested on making people believe he would never blink. Yet after five weeks Trump blinked. This blinking raises questions. Was the shutdown about border security or ego strength? Nancy Pelosi showed no signs of blinking. It was clear who was the emperor with no clothes. Is Pelosi’s ego bigger than Trump’s?
Is Trump bluffing? If so humiliation will pile upon humiliation. Few think the courts will allow him to circumvent the Congress’s constitutional power over the purse. When they stop him, it will seem that everywhere he looks, he looks like a loser. He seems to be unwilling or unable to make any real effort to understand how government works. It seems like just another business to him.
He is like the many college star quarterbacks, including Heisman trophy winners, who wash out or flame out at the NFL level. He is playing in the super bowl of egotism—national politics and international diplomacy—where towering egos, honed by years of playing against the superstars of egotism, love the challenge of making Trump blink.
His theatrical adventure with Kim Jong Un underscores the Trump problem—and allowed Trump to show a less obvious side to his character. His confidence that he could get the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons appears to have run aground on the towering ego of his North Korean counterpart. He went into his second summit with Kim without knowing the first thing anyone needs to know in negotiating a deal—the likely outcome. He misjudged Kim, and the meetings abruptly ended. An interesting side of Trump emerged when he said ‘Sometimes you have to walk away.’ His ego did have a limit. He cut his immediate losses. He blinked again, though more wisely.
We think his initiative with North Korea represented an important potential breakthrough in bringing Kim out of the shadows of isolation and into the light, where real danger could be averted. Yet Trump overplayed his hand and was left with no opportunity to do what he does best: claim victory no matter what happens.
Korea played out as former Trump consigliere Michael Cohen staked out another session of saying no to Trump. Standing up to Trump bluster and bluffing appears to be contagious. Natural political forces tend to move through, around, and over unbending egotism. Even Napoleon learned that lesson.
Trump’s first two years in office were a free ride, with friendly, tame Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Without his monopoly, Trump might still have time to learn about how the government works. That would require humility. While he shows little inclination to let anything get in the way of his ego, his Korean Kim walkaway suggests some sense of egotistical limits in his personal play book.
For someone willing to learn, we still think the transpartisan card might have significant value. Trump shows little sign of understanding, let alone playing it. Still, a meaningful number of Obama/Trump voters exists on the Transpartisan Matrix. Including them in his calculation might feed the Trump ego and get some useful policy made.
Progressive Presidential possibility Sherrod Brown supports much of the Trump tariff and trade policy. There is much more to contemporary politics than a hard wired left/right spectrum. Think Transpartisan.